IN: Reviews

Placing Amy Beach in Context

by

Channing Yu

Rarity being a rarity on the summer music scene, Channing Yu and the Mercury Orchestra deserve kudos for providing a double dose thereof. In their Wednesday concert, produced under the auspices of the Boston Landmarks Orchestra and performed at Jordan Hall as the weather-impervious alternative to the originally scheduled Hatch Shell, this community orchestra and the New World Chorale under Holly MacEwen Krafka presented a unified and thoughtful double bill of late Victorian music invoking Irish culture.

You may have read in these pages a discussion focusing on the anchor piece on the program, the Beach Gaelic Symphony, but that work gained much from its position in relation to the opening work, Charles Villiers Stanford’s Phaudrig Crohoore, a setting for chorus and orchestra of a ballad poem by J(oseph Thomas) Sheridan Le Fanu, best known for ghost and horror stories (one of which was a direct inspiration for his countryman Bram Stoker). Le Fanu (1814-73), like Stanford and later Samuel Beckett a member of the Dublin Protestant bourgeoisie—his French surname a reminder of the Huguenot diaspora of the 17th century—had a strong literary connection, being the great-nephew of Richard Brinsley Sheridan. Poetry was a minor component of his output, but in 1837 his brother William asked for one to use as a recital piece. “Give me an Irish ‘Young Lochinvar,’ he said, and Sheridan came back with “Phaudrig Crohoore,” which commentators translate as Patrick Connor (or Son of Connor, i.e. O’Connor). Readers more knowledgeable than we can perhaps explain the transformation.

The ballad, written to be spoken in country dialect (read it here), concerns a doughty and feisty lad, a giant of 6-foot-8, who loved a lass whose family was against him; she married a family-approved suitor, but Phaudrig crashed the reception, ascertained that she still loved him, accepted the groom’s challenge to a fight, widowed the bride in one blow, and fled with her. Stanford’s setting, written in 1895,  premiered at the Norwich festival in 1896 and published as his op. 62, came on the heels of a full opera on another Le Fanu story, Shamus O’Brien. It was initially quite popular, with over 20 performances in the UK before 1920, with others in the US, but now is not even mentioned in the Wikipedia listing of Stanford’s Works. It does not, so far as we can tell, quote any existing Irish folk melodies, but Stanford adroitly made up his own. The setting is straightforward (rather too much so, according to Hubert Parry), with clever use of choral subsections to create more of a dialogue effect than Le Fanu’s poem does. The harmonies and scoring wove the folk-like materials into Stanford’s Brahmsian idiom, with occasional echoes of the “heavier” works of Arthur Sullivan. Yu led a generally vigorous, full-bodied rendition, balancing orchestral and choral forces well; the elegiac ending was especially affecting. The chorus was communicative, alert and in fine voice, though its pronunciation was doubtless less colloquial than William Le Fanu’s would have been.

It is immensely instructive to contrast the aims and context of the Stanford and Amy Marcy Cheney (“Mrs. H. H. A.”) Beach’s Symphony in E Minor, op. 32 (1896). The one, by an actual Irishman, is, despite its occasional dark or wistful notes, an affectionate and lighthearted invocation of his native culture. The other, by a New England Yankee, might today be disparaged as “cultural appropriation,” but was clearly intended as a token of sympathy and respect for an oppressed population. (Digression: It might be well to remember that not all New England Protestants were or are “Boston Brahmins”: Paine, Foote, Chadwick and Beach were all “swamp Yankees” from the provinces, who may have themselves experienced some condescension from the patricians before their personal merits became apparent recognized.) Also, while not inherent in either composer’s personal voice, Stanford could easily concoct an authentic-sounding Irish idiom with his own resources, while Beach, ever the assiduous learner, went to the Boston Public Library and found source materials she could deploy, though in fairness, some of her original tunes sound as Irish as the ones she quotes.

In addition to trying to write an Irish symphony (we can think of only four expressly so constructed, though our alert readers may come up with more: Sullivan’s, Stanford’s, Beach’s and Hamilton Harty’s), Beach believed herself (wrongly, as it turned out) to be the first woman to write a symphony, though she was probably the first American woman to do so. That the Boston Symphony premiered it in 1896 is a feather in its cap (it wasn’t the first piece by a woman they performed; Margaret Ruthven Lang got there first). [Rant] That the BSO hasn’t performed it since 1898 (Keith Lockhart conducted just the finale in 1999) is rather a disgrace. While it may be unfair to single out the current artistic administration for blame in this, there has been a general neglect by the orchestra of the entire New England School, which contains some wonderful music, like Beach’s symphony and piano concerto, the symphonies and tone poems of Paine and Chadwick and the orchestral music of Foote (including a cello concerto). Why should we have to turn to Detroit for Chadwick, the NY Phil for Paine, and…Nashville(?) for Beach? Of course, it’s all of a piece with the orchestra’s general neglect for the last 50 years of all pre-, anti-, and just barely modern music by Americans. To bring Charles Ives into this, “there are many roads, you know, besides the Wabash.” [End rant]

The symphony is structured conventionally but within the received tradition exhibits many original and even national (that is, American) touches. The extensive use of the full panoply of brass, for example, is a typically American choice, and she is deft in her scoring for bass clarinet (some lovely solos from, we think, Jennifer Park). Beach, the compositional autodidact, is also more daring in her chord changes than her German-trained colleagues. The first movement is surprisingly compact for its breadth of expression, ranging from (mostly)struggle to playfulness. Yu was effective at keeping the propulsion and continuity churning, less successful at creating enough dynamic contrast. Let’s get this out of the way up front: this work was a challenge for the performers, which they confronted bravely but with mixed results. It’s just another reason to demand that there be strong criterion performances by the leading professional ensembles; the work deserves no less.

The second movement, standing in place of a scherzo, is somewhat incongruously marked Alla siciliana. While “fitted out,” as Virgil Thomson used to say, as an ABA form, with a lively “trio,”, it’s monothematic and more like a set of variations. It called forth some fine solo work by Alec Zimmer, horn, and Mary Tripsas, oboe. The slow movement is the cornerstone of the work, by several minutes the longest movement, and grows from pathos (with notable solos from concertmaster Hyunsu Ko and cellist Mikiko Fujiwara) to grandiosity, reminding us a bit of Dvořák’s Eighth Symphony. The finale was full of powerful gestures and grand lyricism.  Even if their reach exceeded their grasp, Yu and the Mercury Orchestra are to be commended for reminding Boston audiences of the treasures that lie in its cultural attic.

Vance R. Koven studied music at Queens College and New England Conservatory, and law at Harvard. A composer and practicing attorney, he was for many years the chairman of Dinosaur Annex Music Ensemble.

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